“More than any other writer, except perhaps Elmore Leonard, [Robert B. Parker] shaped my style and taste in storytelling,” Ace Atkins told me last spring after he’d delivered to his publisher the first installment of a new string of novels starring Parker’s celebrated Boston private eye-cum-knight errant, the single-monikered Spenser.
“I learned a lot from him and use much of his technique in everything I do. We also have a very similar worldview and an appreciation for sports, beer, food and dogs,” Atkins continued. “I also draw a lot into my work from my love of Westerns. You can see a lot of that influence in the Spenser novels.”
Did you read the Rap Sheet’s review of Mark Mills’ ‘The House of the Hunted’?
Atkins added that Parker—who died in January 2010, the victim of a fatal heart attack at age 77—“helped me...find my voice as a writer.”
There’s an appropriateness, then, in the fact that Atkins should now be the author entrusted with perpetuating the Spenser brand. Even better, he’s already showing some genuine talent in fulfilling that assignment.
This week brings the release of Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby, the 40th Spenser novel (following last year’s Sixkill), but the first one to spill from Atkins’ computer. Its plot is recognizably in line with Parker’s previous yarns: A 14-year-old girl, Mattie Sullivan, shows up at Spenser’s office, hoping she can hire him to figure out who killed her mother four years ago. Julie Sullivan wasn’t really much of a mother; she’d been arrested on various occasions for drug possession and prostitution, “and once for public intoxication.” But she was the only parent Mattie and her two younger sisters could claim, and somebody raped and murdered her at age 26, and Mattie is convinced that the person responsible isn’t the low-watt career offender, Mickey Green, who’s currently doing a lifetime prison stretch for the crime.
Naturally, Spenser—whose reputation as a soft touch for underdogs, especially those of the teenage variety, is well-established—agrees to take the case (for the price of a box of doughnuts). This, despite the fact that a quick study of the relevant police files convinces him that he’d “have a better chance of freeing Bruno Hauptmann” than clearing the reprehensible Mickey of Julie Sullivan’s slaying.
All the storytelling elements made so familiar in Parker’s own 39 Spenser novels are on display in Lullaby. Spenser works out at Henry Cimoli’s gym. He swaps good-natured insults and information with buttoned-down homicide squad chieftain Martin Quirk, and sexual banter with his “redheaded and built” attorney, Rita Fiore. He consults on how best to handle Mattie Sullivan with his longtime lady-love, psychologist Susan Silverman. Showing off his culinary skills (talents that Parker, who briefly served as Boston magazine’s dining-out columnist, gave his protagonist early on), Spenser whips up simple but savory meals from refrigerator goods that might have daunted lesser mortals. He summons his faithful sidekick, ex-fighter and sometime leg-breaker Hawk, when he must confront mobsters or the two toughs who were allegedly seen abducting Julie Sullivan on the last night of her life. And of course, Mattie, a girl sometimes too feisty and full of anger for her own good, is another in a proverbial succession of lost children—dating back to Paul Giacomin in Early Autumn (1981) and April Kyle in Ceremony (1982)—who Spenser takes under his brawny wing.
Atkins has even captured Parker’s smart-mouthed style of dialogue. In this excerpt, Hawk meets Spenser at his office:
Hawk was wearing a brown suede sport coat and a black silk shirt opened at the neck. His jeans were properly faded and frayed in the current style, and his cowboy boots were made from ostrich hides.
He caught me staring at his boots.
“What’d an ostrich ever do to you?” I asked.
“Bird died with pride knowin’ it be on my feet.”
I grabbed my peacoat, and the .357 out of my desk drawer.
“Double gunnin’?” Hawk asked.
“Always be prepared,” I said brightly.
“Genghis Khan,” I said.
In fact, Atkins spends so much time trying to capture the wit and melody of Parker’s prose, that it can be hard to spot his peculiar fingerprints on Lullaby. Some of Atkins’ contributions may be perceived only by veteran readers of Spenser’s adventures, as they’re subtle allusions to the gumshoe’s original outings. At one point, for instance, Spenser recalls watching Fourth of July fireworks with Brenda Loring, a “nubile secretary” he dated before falling for Susan Silverman (“I wondered what ever became of her…”). Elsewhere he considers working on a long-neglected chunk of wood that he probably last took his carving knife to in Parker’s first couple of books. And Spenser has started to drink Amstel Light beer again, once a staple of his diet.
What’s also distinctive about Lullaby, though, is a seemingly renewed sense of interest in Boston as a setting.
Spenser was introduced in the early 1970s as one of the first “regional private investigators” in American crime fiction. However, over the ensuing decades, Parker spent less and less time describing the complexities of his hometown. Boston was reduced to a shorthand of visits to the famous Locke-Ober restaurant, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the food stalls at Quincy Market, and the lawns and swans of Boston Common. Atkins, on the other hand, hailing from the South (Alabama, Florida and Mississippi), rather than New England, has more he wants to say about Beantown’s natural and manmade attributes. He makes particular use, in Lullaby, of the city’s densely populated and working-class Irish neighborhood, South Boston (or “Southie”).
Atkins has a long way to go if he’s to make the Spenser series his own, and make it interesting to a new, younger audience. But Lullaby shows that he at least knows how to work the peddles and levers of Parker’s instrument. In the future—by taking some chances with the characters, further exploring Boston and its environs, and perhaps writing a prequel or two—he may still be able to coax a few new tunes from that ol’ girl.
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Parker fans will also want to know about a second new book, In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero. Edited by Otto Penzler, it pulls together a baker’s dozen of crime and mystery writers—including Loren D. Estleman, Lyndsay Faye, Gary Phillips, Max Allan Collins and S.J. Rozan—who look back on the author’s award-winning body of work, his Boston milieu, his continuing players and any influences his fiction had on their own.
Some of those essays are outstanding. Dennis Lehane provides one of the best, explaining how he came to know Parker, both through his stories and as a resident of the same metropolis. Recommended, too, is Lawrence Block’s celebration of Parker’s idiosyncratic “voice.” Ace Atkins chimes in here as well, recalling how he became familiar with the Spenser novels and how they shaped his attitude and choice of career.
It’s the personal pieces that really stand out. Some others are more analytical, taking a broader view of Parker’s impact on the detective-fiction genre (or on television, as in the case of Spenser: For Hire, a 1980s drama inspired by the books). They certainly have value as part of a record of this novelist’s considerable legacy, but glide over the surface of Parker’s story, rather than chewing down into the meat and heart of it.
The merits of Robert B. Parker’s life and literary oeuvre deserve a thorough, thoughtful study. In Pursuit of Spenser, while enjoyable and admirable in many respects, is an imperfect first attempt at that book.